The alphabet is supposed to be a simple concept. Your ABCs are one of the first things you learn. In boxing however, the simplest of theories is often the most complicated. The steady stream of sanctioning bodies, and their respective acronyms, seemingly serve to muddy the already murky waters of modern boxing. Each of these organisations will suggest that their accolades are the most significant, but who has the best claim to that title?
The truth is, unfortunately for them, that they are often just as bad as each other. They can’t blame the vast amounts of ridicule they receive on anyone other than themselves.
With that in mind let us look at each organisation in turn. Weighing up the merits (there are a couple) against the many flaws.
The World Boxing Association (WBA) is the oldest and therefore the most prestigious of all the major sanctioning bodies. Founded in the United States and now operating out of Panama, this was the government for the golden years of heavyweight boxing. They were in charge of the title (note the singular) during the time of Muhammad Ali. Say no more. This, is a good enough argument for many to consider them top of the tree. They were there first, before all the other contenders. All other organisations, federations and councils are pale imitations compared to the historical great that is the WBA. My issue with that argument? There were many things that were great during the 1970’s (probably, I wasn’t born then), however that doesn’t mean they’re any good in 2017.
In recent years, the WBA have arguably contributed more to the dilution of what it means to win a world title than anyone else. At present, you can be considered, in one weight division, by one sanctioning body, either Super World Champion, Regular World Champion, Interim World Champion, Inter-Continental Champion or International Champion. That is 6 different titles before we even get to the regional belts on offer across the continents. How on earth can even the most ardent of boxing fans be expected to know who is THE man when one organisation has that many different titles on offer?
Truth is, they aren’t. That is part of the appeal for bodies and promoters alike.
To anyone other than the extremely naïve, the multiple titles are all about money. They’re not solely designed to get a boxer closer to an elusive world title shot. If that were the case, boxers would simply be ranked by the organisations (all of them) and wins against similarly ranked contenders would see them progress. As we know, or if you don’t you will soon, in order to get a boxer ranked by the WBA all a promoter needs to do is call up and ask. That is what the WBA President Gilberto Mendoza recently confirmed when quizzed on how Paul Smith suddenly appeared as the fifth best Super-Middleweight in the world. This despite never having a win above domestic level. Mendoza admitted that Matchroom had requested he be ranked but conceded that number 5 was probably too high. He added his belief that Smith could easily be in the top 15 and there wouldn’t have been a problem (completely missing the point of meritocracy in the process, even if you agree with that assessment). Again, only the naïve would believe that a promoter simply needs to ask, without financial incentives, and a high ranking shall be given. If it worked like that, the rankings would be changing daily with every promoter in the world demanding their unproven prospects be slotted straight into the top 10.
I feel this is covering old ground and I’m not here, solely, to give the WBA a kicking. My main point is the other organisations are just as bad. Let’s move onto the newest of the quartet. The WBO, officially known as the World Boxing Organisation, or if you listen to certain detractors; (Frank) Warren Boxing Organisation or World Bob (Arum) Organisation. The main reason for these ‘humorous’ amendments is that Warren’s Queensberry Promotions and Arum’s Top Rank stable appear to be on a two horse mission to collect every WBO title in circulation. And like the WBA, there are enough to go round. While they haven’t quite got to the point of Super and Regular, they do have many of the same Inter-Continental and European variants available to cement your position in the top 10.
So as mentioned earlier, why have these baubles if numerical rankings exist? What is better? To be ranked number 3 and not have a title? Or, like Anthony Yarde, be ranked number 5 and hold the ‘coveted’ WBO European title? On the face of it, a higher position means you’re closer to the top. However, boxing is rarely what it seems on the face of it. Yarde is in a very secure position with his title and you can be sure that his promoter is ready, willing and able to fast track him should an attractive opportunity arise in the near future. I am not claiming that any particular promoter has the ability to influence the sanctioning bodies, merely that a longstanding, mutually beneficial relationship between promoter and body won’t complicate matters. By continuing to pay WBO sanctioning fees and promote their titles, Warren and Arum are attempting to increase the legitimacy of the Organisation, and in return they get to consistently provide world title opportunities for their boxers.
This is not exclusive to the WBO and those mentioned. Again, from the outside looking in, the WBC (World Boxing Council) seem to work more closely with certain promoters too. Golden Boy Promotions have had great success over the years with the WBC, no surprise given both companies’ Mexican roots. Al Haymon fighters have also won ‘the green belt’ on several occasions in recent times. Many elite level boxers express their desire to win the WBC version, which would indicate that it holds a certain level of prestige, at least to those involved. If you consider the list of past WBC World Champions, it certainly makes impressive reading. A veritable who’s who of top boxers.
Yet, like its rivals, the WBC seems intent on undoing any goodwill it generates, when enforcing mandatories and allowing cross-sanction unifications, by creating Silver and Diamond versions of their world title. Like the WBA and WBO equivalents, these titles make perfect sense to the boxers and their promoters. Promoters can boast about showcasing ‘Championship Boxing’. The belts enable them to sell tickets based on boxing for a belt. They allow boxers to experience ‘championship’ conditions such as making official weight and training with a title in mind (quite why those can’t be enforced without a belt on the line is lost on me but they have their reasons). From the side of the sanctioning bodies, it is clear. They can charge sanctioning fees. I believe that is the only reason for the existence of such meaningless belts. If it was about securing a high ranking and manoeuvering toward actual world title shots, then they would use the, err, ranking system. Like, dare I say, the UFC?
The final competitor within the ‘Big 4’ is the International Boxing Federation (IBF). ‘The Red Belt’ as no one really calls it. Founded among many allegations of corruption (good start guys), the IBF achieved some instant credibility by installing Larry Holmes as their heavyweight champ and other recognised champions throughout the weight classes. Nowadays, they also have intercontinental, European and international versions of their world title. Spotting that pattern yet? What the IBF have recently tended to do, which works in their favour, is (usually) enforce that their champions defend the belt against mandatory challengers.
All good in theory.
Boxer A works his way up to world level, defeating an ever increasing level of opponent along the way. He earns a shot at the champ. The IBF then declare that if the champion doesn’t agree terms, he must vacate his position as champion of the world. Simple. Errol Spence Jr did exactly that and is now the current (IBF) welterweight ruler. The problem is, that very rarely does a deserving contender get into that position. For every Errol Spence there is a Jo-Jo Dan. Like all of their fellow bodies, the IBF often seem to pluck top challengers out of thin air. This leaves fans with a sour taste, a firm sense of incompetence and, in many cases, a belief of corruption.
So, to reiterate an earlier question, if there are 4 main bodies (and there are according to the general consensus), how do you determine who is the best in each weight class? If truth be told, with great difficulty, a lot of healthy debate and, especially on socially media, insults being traded. As a result of having several sanctioning bodies, the term ‘World Champion’ has been diluted over the decades so it is little wonder that many disillusioned fans see the sport as a watered down version of what they grew up loving.
Now, imagine you have the power, money and ambition to try and sort out this mess once and for all. Would you try? Well, that’s probably what the founders of the WBO, WBC and IBF decided at some point. If the model was broken, then it needed to be fixed. This is me thinking the best of those involved and putting my cynicism aside for the time being. If there were problems with the WBA, then why wouldn’t others try to create a better model, for the good of the sport? Alternatively, they all saw opportunities to drain more money out of a chronically underfunded sport and don’t actually care about the good of boxing. Either way, competition is a good thing. Apparently. The issue is that they don’t actually seem in competition with each other at all. They appear very content to run simultaneously, following each other’s flawed models as long as their pockets are being sufficiently lined.
I have a theory that the International Boxing Organisation (IBO) is no worse than the others. That is not as daft as it sounds. While they are widely ridiculed among knowledgeable boxing followers, could they be establishing themselves as the fifth wheel? To the untrained eye, there is probably very little between them and the aforementioned quartet. As of December 2017, the IBO can proudly list Anthony Joshua, Gennady Golovkin, Chris Eubank Jr and Erislandy Lara among their belt-holders. The problem lies with the fact that, Eubank aside, none of those champions hold only the IBO version. Therefore, the IBO is currently seen as a secondary world title, a hanger on to the others. How does this change then?
Well, many would argue that the individual belts themselves mean very little in the grand scheme of things. Not to the boxers, who fulfil a lifelong dream when they claim one, but the fans who pay their hard-earned cash to watch the dream become reality. Now by definition, not every world champion can be the best at their weight. So, it isn’t a symbol of being the best. Winning a world title is almost like getting into a semi-final stage to determine who is number one. Unfortunately, this sort of elimination rarely happens, so it is largely down to knowledgeable fans to hypothesise until such unifications take place.
Imagine, Eubank Jr wins the World Super Series of Boxing. In doing so, he would become unified WBA Super and IBO World Champion. Imagine he then fought and beat IBF champ James Degale. Neither of those things are massively out of the realms of possibility. A large proportion of boxing fans, experts and personalities would consider Eubank the best 168 lb boxer on the planet. He would have the power. His next move would impact the four-body-landscape currently ruling the sport. If he were to vacant the currently meaningless IBO title then the status quo is restored. However, should he drop the other titles and retain his IBO strap, then the most important belt in one of the fiercest divisions (historically in this country anyway) would be the IBO version.
Admittedly, this is some way off happening and it would only be one division. If all of the other top-level champions mentioned prioritised their IBO belts above all others, then maybe the European sanctioning body would become more legitimate. Until that happens, the IBO will remain forever on the periphery of the ‘Big 4’.
And let’s face it, if three’s a crowd then what is four?
Note: This was long winded enough without mentioning the GBC, GBF, GBO, GBU, IBA, IBC, IBU, UBC, UBF, UBO, WBB (World Boxing Board), WBB (World Boxing Bureau), WBF, WBL, WBU, WPBF or the WSF, all of which claim to have a World Champion.